TORONTO -- Cubs manager David Ross doesn’t like placing expectations on young guys breaking into the big leagues. But whatever he expected from Javier Assad, the rookie starter has delivered more.
Building off four scoreless innings in his Aug. 23 debut, Assad continued to carve in his second career start, blanking the Blue Jays for five frames in Chicago’s 11-inning, 5-4 loss on Monday night at Rogers Centre. The 25-year-old navigated traffic on the basepaths and kept hitters off balance, extending his shutout streak to nine innings to begin his MLB career.
“Love the way he works,” Ross said. “Really nice job in back-to-back starts.”
Assad drew what Ross called a “tough matchup” in his MLB debut against the Cardinals, baseball’s fourth-best offense when it comes to runs scored. Facing off against a similarly threatening lineup on Monday, the rookie was even better. Pitching five innings of scoreless ball against Toronto, Assad became the first pitcher in the modern era (since 1900) to have two scoreless starts against teams 10 or more games above .500 to begin a career.
Four innings before the righty walked off the mound in line for the win, the rookie's start was on the brink of disaster. After retiring Toronto’s opening two batters with harmless grounders, Assad loaded the bases for his first true MLB jam. After a Willson Contreras mound visit and a calming breath, the rookie found his way out of the tough spot, inducing a casual fly ball to end the threat.
"It was a long inning, I was getting kind of tired out there," Assad said through interpreter Will Nadal. "So [Contreras'] message was just to take it easy, calm down, take a deep breath, and we were able to execute with the next batter."
After escaping the first, Assad was back to rolling. The righty was in-and-out of the second inning on 10 pitches and allowed only two singles for the rest of his start. After another quick frame in the third, Assad bounced off the mound with a swagger in his step, hopping over the foul line as he clapped his hands together with conviction.
“I've just been trying to be calm and focused out there,” Assad said. “Just trying to execute my pitches, follow the game plan, and that's really helped build my confidence.”
Assad’s rising confidence was mirrored by Toronto’s mounting frustration. The Blue Jays are a disciplined team, Ross noted before Monday’s game, forcing pitchers into the strike zone to do damage. But Assad was able to survive on the edges, pushing his sinker in on the righties, the cutter away and the changeup tucked below the zone.
After slashing over an inside sinker in the third frame, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. stepped out of the batter’s box to collect himself, deeply exhaling. When he stepped back in to face Assad once more, the Chicago hurler drew an equally ugly swing on a low off-speed pitch. The Jays had their chances, putting six baserunners on against the Cubs' starter, but when Assad needed a soft grounder or harmless fly ball, he got one.
As the Cubs tacked on two runs in the top of the sixth, Assad received a post-outing handshake from his manager. While Ross didn’t want to heap lofty expectations on his rookie starter before the Monday start, a second scoreless outing will certainly raise them moving forward.